Monday, May 28, 2012

How I went to jail. Twice!

One of the less delightful aspects of my job is to visit American citizens who for one reason or another happened to land in the local jails. To be honest, the American Embassy provides mostly moral support and lends a sympathetic ear (well, in this case, MY ear) to the raves and rants of our fellow citizens behind the less than hospitable bars of the host country. We generously give them a list of lawyers in case they don’t already have one such expensive accessory and subsequently monitor first the trial to ensure fairness and then their condition in the prison to make sure they are treated reasonably well. For folks who have been in reason for some time, we are supposed to visit at least a month. For jail freshmen, we need to visit immediately.
And so it happened that on a bright, stuffy, painfully hot and muggy day I was supposed to visit a long-term prisoner fella’ of ours who is behind bars for murder. It also just so happened that we got news that a brand new, wide-eyed American had also found his way into prison the previous week. Not one to waste governmental money for extra gas, I decided to combine both trips and spend some quality time at Dhaka Central Jail. It was going to be my first trip and my palms were getting sweaty from the excitement. Or from the excessive muggy heat, who knows. There was, however, a large fly in the ointment, as an old economics teacher of mine, one infamous Padma Desai, would say. The large hairy fly was the fact that we needed to get permission from the Bangladesh government to visit our new jailbird. The road to permission is laden with traps like dip notes, notes verbale, gazillion phone calls to ministers, vice-ministers, petit administrators, prison chiefs, inspectors, a few second and third secretaries, several angry emails and 2 non-working fax machines. To make a long story short, a week into the process, we seemed deceptively close to getting the coveted permission (you’d think we wanted to shoot vodka with the head imam instead of going on a prison visit) but not really getting it.
Since we had to visit our prisoner N1 anyway (we have a long standing permission to visit him), we decided to go and hope that somehow while we were on our way, the permission for prisoner N2 will magically materialize. It took us only 1 hour to get there – the Central Jail is in old Dhaka, a place that is rather challenging to navigate given that its streets were designed to let through a few cows and a goat, not a Chevy SUV, 5678 rickshaws and 357,834 pedestrians in addition to the goats. We arrived at prison just as a bunch of particularly grisly prisoners, shackled in contraptions circa 1910 were climbing morosely into a large prehistoric blue bus. I could not stop conjuring scenes from “Oh Brother, Where Art Though?” Even though I had tried to dress conservatively for the day (I wore pants, a first for me in this climate), I was an instant hit in the square in front of the jail. Everyone in the vicinity either glued themselves to the windows or stopped in the street and openly stared. Inasmuch as I wanted to appear strong yet graceful, my appearance was definitely marred by the fact that I was carrying a massive (and heavy) duffel bag filled with books and newspapers for Mr. Prisoner, clutching a very uncomfortable folder under my left arm and my purse under the other (I was paranoid someone will snatch it from me). In addition, my blond curly hair was rapidly turning into a massive cloud of frizzy mess on top of my head, effectively making me look like a frantic sweaty administrative sheep. I marched on, determined, towards the prison gate which for some odd reason was only 5 ft tall and necessitated me to bend over and go inside in an even less graceful manner. I am afraid I made a rather comical entrance and did not impress the ail Superintendent one bit. Which was bad because I badly needed to impress him - as you can imagine, the permission to see our prisoner had not arrived and he flatly refused to let us see him.
Instead, we waited for about 2 hours to meet with our other prisoner. We were seated politely in an outdoors area, in front of a massive fan, on playfully tasteful wicker furniture and served prison-baked cookies. Needless to say, I was also intensely stared at for every minute of those 2 hours by every policemen, detective, passing prisoner and random loiterer inside (there seemed to be so many). In the meantime, the jail superintendent came by to release some prisoners – he’d call their names, look into a ginormous red book, ask them secure self-identifying questions like “what’s your mother’s name,” joke about their crime and then let them go. We eventually saw our prisoner, gave him a bunch of books, chatted with him for 20 mins and left. No amount of pleading and cajoling would make him allow us the other guy.
Of course, we finally got the permission 10 mins after we came back to the Embassy that same day. Which meant that on the following day my senior local staff and I found ourselves once again prison bound. We were well on our way when the driver took a wrong turn. Suddenly we were in an impossible myriad of streets, no names or any other distinctive signs, surrounded by rickshaws and a sea of people peddling (or buying) any imaginable item in the world. None of the above were moved, literally, by the presence of the large white Embassy SUV. In fact, it seemed sometimes that rickshaws climbed on top of the massive armored vehicle. We went places where no car has ever been, I am sure. Even the goats were amused by our presence there.
Two and half hours later, we spilled out of the banged up vehicle in front of prison to the utter delight of the yesterday’s gawkers. Once back inside, the superintendent poured over the permission to see our guy and seemingly enthusiastically ordered someone to get the guy prepped. Then he set out to his usual business of releasing skinny frightened criminals, one of which said that he was either 12, 13 or 14 years old?! To add to the performance, two neat and serene detectives in killer ties joined the party – I think they were supposed to watch the released and pick some of them for testifying. Unless I was one of the potential witnesses, I don’t think they saw much since both of them bore unblinking eyes into me while I pretended to understand everything that was going on. About 1.5 hrs later, a policeman came to double check on the name of the AMCIT prisoner – we confirmed, He disappeared. Another one appeared from nowhere with a tray of cookies placed gracefully on plates engraved in cursive with “Dhaka Central Jail” on them. Someone out there actually thought about hosting guests in prison and ordered them plates. Hospitality is the word! At that precise moment, the policeman came back and told us, “Um, the American was released 2 days ago…” and then left hurriedly, almost skipping on his way out, possibly incinerated by the look I gave him. I made sure I glared sufficiently at everyone around me, got up with the look of a very hurt pride (I did feel rather stupid at that moment since we had raised such hell in order to see that guy) and walked away, slicking my high heels on the stone prison floor as hard as I could. Positively good times.
In other news, the Diplomat just came from a memorable weekend away in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he went off to feel manly with another 5 of his Embassy buddies. They all came back in one piece and their wildest stories include dancing with each other until 3 am, riding mopeds on the highway to sightsee, playing indecent amounts of tennis and drinking duty-free vodka in the early afternoon. Wild times.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Laos, Secretary Clinton and the Latino Ball

So, I was going to devote my next post entirely to Laos and how fabulous it is, but then some other rather exciting things happened in the meantime and so all Laos gets is 2 sentences. There it goes: Laos is fantastic – calm, clean, excellent cuisine, still largely unspoiled by tourists, wonderful smiling people. While Vientiane was a tad underwhelming (couple of fabulous Wats notwithstanding), Luang Prabang delivered and how – gorgeous multiple Wats, excellent restaurants perched on the river, elephant rides and water baths, monkey jumping from a rope into a crystal blue mountain waterfall, and cooler air. Yes, we loved Luang Prabang, it was a great end to a fabulous trip. On the way back on the wings of Bangkok Air, we had a 6 hour layover in Bangkok, which we used to snag a dinner at HardRock CafĂ© downtown. Don’t judge, people, don't you judge! After 10 months in South Asia, one craves a smidgeon of home food and atmosphere, even if the local food is amazing.

As we were dining peacefully in HardRock on some potato skins and massive beer, I all of a sudden read in the news that my boss, Secretary Clinton, is coming to town. As Elmo would say - Oh boy!! This was my first time experiencing a major Washington visit at an embassy and let me tell you – it was an eye opener on some many different levels! At the State Department, we have funny abbreviations like POTUS (President of the United States), FLOTUS (???) (First Lady), S for Secretary, CODEL for a congressional delegation, and so on. Oh yeah, we have a great sense of humor in DOS! So, S’s visit to Bangladesh was for only 22 hours and she wanted to meet the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister, the opposition leader, the civil society leaders, the youth and the embassy community. In 22 hours, people - the lady is amazing! Phew! And we had to make it happen with less than a week to prep. You have no idea what this entails until you become part of the circus.

First, an advance team comes from Washington – apart from the security detail, the sniffing dogs, a bunch of other guys whose function still remains a mystery to me, there are also several foreign service officers who come in advance and help plan the dance with the embassy. Apart from serving overseas, our career also brings us back to serve in the U.S. There are generally 2 types of jobs – analytical (say, desk officer for a country or some other functional position, like human rights for Africa) and the action – packed “7th” floor job. The 7th floor in the Department of State is where S office and her immediate staff preside. To work there is, to say the least, rather prestigious. Among some of the support roles for the 7th floor are the Operations Center (provides 24 hours communications and crisis management support to all of us) and the so-called “Line” (S’s travel team, of which the advance team is a part). I have never seen such an efficient, fast and furious machine unfold itself within such a short period of time. Every day we had countdown meetings, where Secretary Clinton’s every step was planned literally in 1-minute increments. Roles were being assigned, more and more people roped in every hour or so and by the end, most warm bodies in the Embassy had some function in the visit, even if they were to supervise luggage or sell candy in the hotel operations room. I got to babysit the local press for some of the meetings. Which was cool because it meant that I will get to see S at least 2 times if not more, while some of the worker bees on the visit never even got to see her. After all was said and done, the Secretary left swiftly and somehow magically all the staff and equipment disappeared within the next 24 hours like they have never even set foot in Dhaka. One day, when I grow up, I want to work “on the line”!

The visit required both me and the Diplomat to work all weekend. One of my meetings was at the American Club, which meant that on a hot Friday afternoon I had to go there, fully clad in a suit while the poolside was filled with happy screaming kids and parents, gleefully jumping in and out of the cool water. Son was at home with his babysitter. All weekend long. I came home at 11 pm that night and had to leave at 6 am the next morning. I didn’t see him most of the weekend, which made me feel incredibly guilty – it is so easy to feel like you are a bad mom. But the truth is, this happens. It happens in almost every job - there are late nights, overnight trips, moments and hours when you just want to be alone and not be engaged 100% with your child. And so it is ok. It happens much less for those working in consular positions, but if you are a public diplomacy, political, econ or even management officer, late nights and weekends are par for the course – whether it is a gallery opening for Cultural Affairs, or a pesky late night cable for Political after a long and possibly fruitless meeting with some governmental official, or preparing for yet another CODEL (congressional delegation) for Management. Being a Foreign Service officer is a fabulous job but it comes with its own baggage. I still want to work on the line. And be a FSO. I LOVE my job!

And now here is my stupid moment of the S visit. Secretary Clinton had breakfast at the ambassador’s house along with two of the most prominent Bangladeshi civil society leaders. I was managing the press at the event which was staying in a side room, facing the guest bathroom. When it was about time for her to leave, she apparently went to the restroom (which I did not notice). At the same time, I decided to lean on the door of the press holding room and see if I can hear whether the meeting nearing its end. At that precise moment, the Secretary came out of the restroom, looked at me, smiled widely and said, “Thank you!” (for the great logistical support, I suppose). I was so surprised to see her so close face to face that the only thing I could blurt out was another, “Umm, thank you!” Literally 30 seconds later much more intellectual and engaging things to say came to my mind, like “It was great having you here, Mdm. Secretary!” or “We are so excited to have you here!” or even “Your hair sure looks nice today! (it did).” Instead, I just stood there smiling inanely – she nodded politely and left. Sigh….

The following Friday we all let loose at the Latino Ball. You should see the Diplomat and me dancing – it is a vision…Suffice it to say that he not a natural born dancer, while I am quite deft at the dance floor. One thing I’ll say – the poor man at least obliges me. So, when we dance, most of my time is spent hissing in his ears his moves while he tries to decipher what in the world he is supposed to be doing. The result is potentially comical. But at least we are on the dance floor! Some husbands won’t even make it to the Ball. Shame on them! Dance, husbands, dance!

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Cambodia – Phnom Penh and Siem Riep

It has been a really long time since my last post, but the reason is that the Diplomat and I decided to take a little trip on the wild side and visit Cambodia and Laos. So, we called my Mom, bought her a ticket and dragged her to play with Son for 12 days while we gallivanted through the exotic and less traveled paths of South Asia. She happily obliged and we left for our little solo adventure filled with the usual doses of excitement and trepidation parents feel when they are leaving their fragile progeny behind.

Our first stop was Phnom Penh, where we had booked the posh Raffles Hotel Le Royal. And Le Royal it was! One of the few fine examples of French colonial architecture left in the city, the hotel is resplendent with its two outdoor swimming pools surrounded by stunning frangipani trees, extensive bar and a multitude of frisky Nordic college students ostensibly there for an obscure research assignment. Unless their goal was to research each other, I don’t think they got much done because none of them left the poolside within the 3 days we were there. The hotel houses curious relics like a champagne glass with the lipstick imprint of Jackie O.’s beloved lips – apparently, she expressed a burning desire to see Angkor Wat, and while in Cambodia, stayed in the regal hotel. The one thing that sort of spoiled the gentile atmosphere was the fact that I was sick and kept coughing my brains out. My chest was very congested so I was hacking left and right to the utter horror of the hotel staff and the Diplomat, who throughout the trip reacted every time to my maniacal coughing as if I was killing small kittens with a blunt fork. Sadly, there wasn’t much I could so cough I did. My congestion was over the day we left. Of course.

The city itself is quite cute and becoming rapidly rather touristy to accommodate the scores of western bearded backpackers in search of an exotic adventure. It still remains a calm haven compared to the happy mayhem of Bangkok, and so we spent 4 hazy, hot days dragging ourselves slowly through the cultural attractions (think a royal palace, an impressive wat and a Russian market filled with super authentic Cambodian knick-knacks), dined in the cute riverside restaurants, swam in the gorgeous hotel pool and slept to our hearts’ content. I must be honest – I did spend a considerable amount of time on this trip sleeping. I reasoned that no matter how cultural and interesting those countries were, this was still MY VACATION and, as every working parent of toddlers out there will undoubtedly understand, I needed to catch up on some sleep and relaxation. After a nice Phnom Penh soak, we climbed a scary and puny looking propeller plane and flew on the expert wings of Cambodia Angkor Air to Siem Riep. 45 minutes of Diplomat’s hyperventilating later and we arrived in the famed ancient town.

Siem Riep boasts 2 main things – copious amounts of remarkably well-preserved ancient temples (called wats) and a rather astonishingly active night life downtown. We arrived ready and excited to tackle both. After leaving our bags, we ran to the center of the city and to our utter shock discovered a scene quite like downtown French Quarter in New Orleans. There were a million restaurants and bars, loud music, horrendous live bands and excellent food and drinks, mixed with massage parlors and a bunch of water tanks filled with grisly looking kind of fish, ready to nibble on your unsuspecting feet. A sign above all of them reassured the apprehensive tourist, “No piranhas!” You don’t say – you’d think that’s presumed? While we had copious, practically indecent amounts of massages on this trip, we never succumbed to the fish exfoliation scheme – there was something rather ominous in the way all hungry fish would converge and try to jump out of the water whenever I approached the fish tank. My feet remain calloused but safe.

One thing I have to say about Cambodia – there is free wi-fi everywhere, including the airport, road shacks and hotel bathrooms. It was so ubiquitous and common that I started half-expecting it in the ruins of Angor. It was a really amazing thing, you have to admit – we would sit in a nice restaurant for dinner, I’d pull out my Android phone, dial Skype and voila, hear the screeching voice of a very pixelized version of Son from Bangladesh, who’d invariably ask about his impending gifts from our trip. I know this is a rather banal statement by now, but, really, technology is pretty shocking these days.

We spent the next 3 days cavorting around the ruins of Angkor under the blazing sun. After 2-3 hours, the Diplomat would start getting cranky and sit down more and more around the centuries-old stones, patiently waiting to be photographed from various angles as I experimented with some newly discovered settings of my camera. Soon even that patience would wear off and he’d start giving me some truly incinerating looks, which would signal the need to go back to the hotel and chill out (literally). To see the wats in relative coolness, we woke up every day at 6.30ish, and were done for the day by 12ish. Except for the day when we foolishly decided to do the tourist thing and see the sunset from a wat called Phnom Bakheng. After climbing a steep hill in the 5 pm heat for about 10 mins, we reached a somewhat underwhelming wat, popular mostly because of its good location for viewing sunsets. The line to climb on it was rather lengthy and moved at a snail’s pace – I figured that by the time it was out turn to go on the top, the sun not only would have set, but it might already be rising on the following day. Irritated, I went to ask the languid girl manning the line what the deal was and she brightly informed me that they are closing the line in 4 minutes and only those who have made it past her by then, would go up for the coveted sunset. I did the math and there was no way we could make it. Then suddenly, they started letting people up rather briskly. The languid ticket lady motioned me and the Diplomat in, and then suddenly roped off the precious ruin and said crisply to the frenzied, sweaty, sunset-loving queue behind us, “No more!” Well, we certainly were lucky on THAT one. So, we climbed the steps of the wat, expecting the sunset of our lives, romance, butterflies, music, mist, magic, anything really. What we got was a temple top filled to the brim with loud tourists and their cameras. Every which way you look, every corner you’d stick your head into, there would be a tourist with a camera. Then the wait for the sunset began. But the damn sun would just not set fast enough. After taking about 245 mediocre pictures of dusk, I picked up the utterly bored Diplomat and we decided to go back to the hotel, have a swim and go for a nice, long street food dinner. Best decision ever taken.

One unfortunate side-effect of the now-booming Angkor tourist is the incredible amount of peddlers inhabiting the various wats. The second we’d get off from our tuk-tuk (a motorized rickshaw) in front of a gorgeous ancient temple, just as we are about to be enveloped in images of past Khmer empires and transport ourselves some 1000 years ago, an incredibly persistent crowd of women would jump us, asking whether we are interested in chilled water, mangos, pineapple, coconut, beer, food, hats, guides, pins, wooden elephants, ANYTHING at all. So much for that romantic ancient feeling.

All in all, Angkor and its wats is a truly astonishing place. From Angkor Wat itself and its impressive 5 towers, to Ta Prohm where giant trees engulf the ruins and Angelina Jolie immortalized in Tomb Raider, to smaller but no less fascinating temples, it is a must see in one’s life.

On day 6 of our journey, we were ready to board the next propeller that would takes us to the less traveled roads of Laos.